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The New Lexus Design Language

The Issue
Since the debut of Lexus in 1989, Toyota has given us fabulously engineered cars that, well, look like they were adopted into the same family, yet born of different parents. The LS400 (and later LS430) always looked like an evolved version of itself, the new SC seems to follow form the old one, and the GS and ES designs can be traced through their different versions easily. In SUVs, the situation is no different. The RX and LX are totally different looking machines, but both second generations looks like evolved versions of their first generation. The new GX470 does bear some resemblance to the LX470, at least. Overall, however, there is nothing that holds the brand together save for the bent L badge on the hood and trunk. This is not just a problem at Lexus, but the entire Toyota Motor Company. Scions have nothing in common with each other (which is more likely a function of the fact that the brand is made up of two quirky Japanese transplants, and one clean-sheet, dedicated design). Toyotas look very dissimilar, even within the same vehicle type. The Highlander and 4Runner look totally different in every way. Not even a common grille design is shared.

So, you may be asking yourself, who cares? Why does this matter? It matters because it lessens the importance of the brand itself. What is Lexus? To most people, it's a well-made car that's bland and comes with great customer service. That can be said of every Lexus ever made. What's a BMW? There are the obvious driving dynamics and performance adjectives that come to mind, but you always get the double kidney grille and the signature Hofmeister Kink in the rear window. Be it a sedan, coupe, convertible, wagon or SUV, you know instantly that you're looking at a BMW. Even with Chris Bangle's terrible new designs (in my opinion), the essence of each model is still boldly BMW. What exactly is the essence of Lexus's design?

The LF-S As The 2006 GS
Enter the Lexus LF-S. At the 2003 Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota showed the LF-S, which was said to be the next GS, due in 2006. There were certainly adaptations made in bringing the car to market, but you see some key design elements that Toyota claims will be the basis of the Lexus design going forward. The general shape of the greenhouse, which has become Audi's calling card (until their new shield grille is installed across their entire line), the angular nose with pointed headlights, and no cladding. The GS, in my opinion, retains a bit more of its heritage in its design than a true production-ready version of the LF-S would. This is our first chance to get used to the new Lexus, and they're doing it in baby steps. Make no mistake, this is the Lexus we will be seeing for the future. Several magazines have said the LF-S is actually supposed to be the next LS, which would make more sense, but there are reports of it being the design for the GS that are just as frequent.

In my opinion, the GS actually looks better than the LF-S, which I thought was a little too extreme in its angles, but neither of them strikes me in the same way some of Lexus's competitors' designs do. Furthermore, I see two cars cut together to form the new GS. While Lexus has always been said to copy Mercedes with the LS400/LS430, I can't say I give them credit for copying two companies with their new design language.

Can The Real Lexus Please Stand Up
So, what design languages are at play in the new Lexus look? I would say two very pronounced themes. The first, as can be seen in the front end, comes from Acura. Acura's show cars look very similar in the front to the LF-S. Only Acura was showing these cars three to four years ago. The TL Concept, which spawned the 2003 TL, had angular headlights that swept back into the front fender. Now, Acura's lights didn't come up so much as sweep into the side of the fender, but the sharp angularity was defined by Acura, and no other luxury marques have used it so far. In the LF-S and, to a great extent, the GS, I see BMW. Where? Well, the rear door has an angle to its glass not dissimilar from the Hofmeister Kink in both the GS and the LF-S. It's not a 1-to-1 match, but it's awfully close. The other place is specific to the GS. People have complained that Chris Bangle's BMWs are all bulbous, blob on blob designs (especially in the trunk area). This appears to be the case with the GS's greenhouse, which looks like a blob sitting on top of the main body structure, especially in the back.

While I think the front end is too plain on the LF-S, it was fancied up a bit for production in the GS, and looks fairly good. I think that the fact that there's so much similarity to the design language Acura announced a few years back is not a good thing, especially from a competition standpoint. If you look at the market, though, Lexus does not typically face off against Acura as much as Infiniti (at least with the LX470 and QX56, and the LS430 and the Q45) or, more likely, Mercedes. Acura and Infiniti butt heads more often, and look totally different from each other. What Toyota chose to do was distance itself from its main competition for the first time, and this I can commend them for. I just wish they had tried to be a little more original in doing so.

As for the BMW-ness of the car, especially in the rear third of the design, I would actually say Lexus pulls this off quite well, and better than BMW does on the 7 and 6 series. Those cars end up looking a bit dumpy, whereas the 2006 Lexus GS430 seems to be fairly well-proportioned, and harkens back to the original Giugiaro-designed GS300 of the early 1990s (a car which never sold terribly well, however). That car was original in every way, and I commend Lexus for keeping its uniqueness present as they fold it into the new corporate look.

The LF-S As The 2007 IS?
If you ask me, the LF-S is almost exactly the same looking as the next IS model, to come in 330 and 430 flavors for sedan, SportCross and coupe versions (perhaps a convertible, as well). Lexus is aiming squarely at the BMW 3-series (as everyone is), and wants to expand their model range to better compete with the next 3- and 4-series cars. If you study the LF-S concept car, and compare it to the sketches of the next IS, you see much closer ties than between the LF-S and the car it was claimed to be the concept for, the 2006 GS.

The Final Review
So, while I am actually knocking aspects of this design, I do like it. I like the fact that, for once, Toyota is taking a holistic approach to design in one of their brands. I hope they extend this to Toyota and Scion. My complaints were just issues of originality, which I think are fair complaints.

But I like most about this is that they're serious about it. The LF-S defined the language. Other concepts, like the 2007 IS and IS Coupe, follow that language very well. I think they are doing something many car makers stray from. If you watch other Lexus concept cars that are coming out, you will see a faithful interpretation and translation. They released a concept sports car that really looks like a 2-door LF-S that is going a lot faster (at stand-still). So, whether you agree with the design or not is a personal issue. But, you can't argue with Lexus for being true to their newly stated design mission, and that, I certainly can applaud.


How About Some Distinction?

Managing Editor

Toyota design, in general, has always been kind of bland and uninspiring for the most part. In the same way Bryan says Audi's calling card was the sensuous curve of the roofline, Toyota's calling card typically was style that was neither offending nor engaging. Considering the company isn't exactly struggling financially, why should this change? Well, for one huge reason, Toyota's customer base is creeping towards the average age of a typical Buick consumer, as was discussed in one of Bryan's other articles.

Personally, I like the new GS. I do see a hint of BMW in its style as Bryan points out, which includes a little Z4 in the front headlight area. However, the design is fresh, and it gives the aging GS series a much needed change that should help attract some new, younger consumers. The new GS should compete pretty well with the current crop of big, powerful sedans.

However, in my own opinion, Lexus's biggest problem isn't so much the dissimilar nature of each model's design. It's the fact that there isn't much separating some Toyota and Lexus models from each other in terms of style. Take, for example, the Lexus ES330 and the Toyota Camry - the bread and butter sedans of their respective brands. If you don't see a carbon copy or even striking resemblance, may I refer you to an excellent optician? While the Lexus offers an advantage in terms of the feature set (more luxury appointments), the point is there are consumers out there who don't want their $30,000+ Lexus being mistaken for a sub $20,000 Camry. I, for one, would like my luxury car with some distinction. The same thing goes for the Toyota Land Cruiser and Lexus LX470.

Sure, Lexus should have an 'identifying feature', a characteristic across all models that makes them undeniably a Lexus. However, let's differentiate the two brand's style first then start with trying to create a corporate resemblance.